Monday, November 1, 2010: Maximum Shelf: A Secret Gift
Maximum Shelf: A Secret Gift
In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present A Secret Gift by Ted Gup, a November 1 publication of the Penguin Press, and a perfect book for gift-giving. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl. The Penguin Press has helped support the issue.
Books & Authors
Ted Gup: Hard Times and Second Chances
What was it like to revisit the universe of your childhood and see it through such different eyes?
It gave me a much deeper appreciation of what the town had been through and what all of our parents and grandparents had been through. I felt when I was walking down the street that I wasn't alone, that I was in the company of all of these true spiritual guides from the past, these people whose letters I'd read and whose descendants I'd spoken to, and I got a much better insight into how it was that the character of the town was formed by the individuals who lived there, and how the legacy of that period was very much still a part of Canton. Especially in the first few times I went back, it was in some ways disturbing because I could feel the residue of want from these letters; I would walk down a street or an alley or look at a house and know what happened there--I had a pretty vivid picture both from the letters and from interviewing people--and then I also came away with a sense of relief that even though these present days are difficult times they aren't Hard Times in capitals. There was a sense that the past experience transformed the people and the town and the country. And we are all very different because of the Great Depression.
The hometown that I knew and the childhood that I had was a pretty halcyon experience; it was a place where most of the lawns were well-tended and there were lots of safety nets. I don't mean to suggest that everyone was well-to-do, because they weren't, but they were so much more prosperous than the town I was writing about. I was aware of these two towns coexisting in the same place, one in the past and one in the present.
Something you write about is the Greatest Generation. Do you think the current climate provides a crucible that will produce another Greatest Generation?
I don't think we're in a depression now, I think we're in a very deep recession, the deepest since the Great Depression. I know a lot of people are traumatized. I think it will have an effect on our character, not to the same degree and depth of the Great Depression, but I do think that it will restore some sense of perspective and context. It will make people more appreciative of what they have and more aware of what really matters in life, probably make them less materialistic and less likely to whine or complain if they have a bad day at the office. I think a lot of people will be very grateful just to have an office or factory to go to.
But it's not as profound in effect as the Great Depression because the Depression really lasted a decade and took people to depths that before were almost undreamt of. There was no safety net and so if you experience something that defining--it's somewhat sui generis. We're in a hard spot right now, but not a 10-year depression. And I think that this story, this book, gives you a little perspective of what we are going through it today. It contextualizes it. No way are people not suffering today, but it does provide a little perspective, I hope.
Folks in that time period developed a resourcefulness and a resilience that was breathtaking. I came away from my interviews with a great deal of admiration for them; the way that they soldiered through, the way that they protected their loved ones from the worst of it, was really quite extraordinary. They didn't have therapy groups, they didn't go to psychiatrists or psychologists, they toughed it out and spouses didn't share their deepest misgivings and doubts with their loved ones, they didn't want to burden them because they were already stooped under the burdens of the Depression. It also was a period with humor in the songs and the movies; there was a dark humor born in the Depression, just as there is in wartime to help people get through it.
In one place in the book you talk about people later finding so much that had been hoarded, like the $20 bill behind the picture.
That is the root of our prosperity. They didn't call it recycling, they just didn't throw anything away. Everything was used until it was no longer usable, then it was converted to another use. They used it and reused it. This was the year Scotch tape came out, and nothing got thrown out, a time when "waste not, want not" became a byword. Proverbs about conserving were deeply embedded in the culture of the period and passed on. When I left my bedroom and left the light on, there was no way I could continue doing what I was doing. My dad would send me back to my room to turn the light out. You didn't waste. And now we have a doorknob that holds rubber bands. One of the things that was handed down to us was a sensitivity to making full use of what we have, and there's nothing imprudent about that at all. But it does get diluted by the third generation. We are selective in our conservation--we're profligate in some ways, and we conserve in others. And that's what happens after three generations removal from the Depression. You asked if the current situation will change people, and I think most certainly "yes." People have changed how they live and how they view their own lives. Today they don't take nearly as much for granted as they did two years ago. I know in my own family there was a time when my sister lost her job, and my brother-in-law, my brother's business was profoundly affected, my neighbor lost his home, there was evidence all around me that we were in a turbulent time, and that affects the way you view your own life.
You say at one point there is a divide between people who are forced to cut back on their spending and those who go hungry.
That is really the chasm that separates these times from those times. There are people in dire straits right now and we should never forget that and never suggest that they are not; in fact, this is a very telling figure: we have today about 15 million people who are out of work, which is the same as the Depression, but now it's under 10% of our population and then it was closer to 25%. But that's not a lot comfort to the people who are out of work.
Men and women of that era distanced themselves from the darkness of their early lives. Why did they do that?
Everybody believes in redemption and second chances, and the way you separate yourself from a bad period is, you kind of take a mental eraser to it. You reinvent yourself. That's why we have New Year's, it's why we have end of the week, the beginning of the next. It isn't just defined by celestial movement, we have a need to believe we can begin again and separate ourselves from hard times. In that period, in 1933, people who were, for example, in middle age, had already endured tremendous hardship--the constant threat of diseases for which there were no cures, an unspeakably horrible world war, in many cases considerable poverty, an exodus from a native land overseas. They already endured a heck of lot, and America was a place that offered a clean slate and another chance, whether you were born here or immigrated. And so that was kind of built into the American character by 1933. We can begin again, and my grandfather, who was a key part of this story, was a firm believer in that. He virtually reinvented himself.
Today we still believe in second (and more) chances but today, in contrast to the past, we tell everything about ourselves, and want everybody to know what happened to us the first time.
I think that's true; there are many people like that, but not all. I'm in the latter category; I'm a relatively private person. I don't really believe in doing my personal laundry in public. I think there are other people like that. There is also an entire movement that has made suffering a form of entertainment, on reality TV and elsewhere. The people of 1933 had a sense of privacy and personal dignity. They would have prohibited the sort of exhibitionism and wallowing in self-pity you see on air and in the papers and magazines and on-line. They were a different breed, they did not believe in trafficking in their hardships. That was really anathema to them. They were buttoned down pretty tight and believed that would have been unseemly behavior. I think they would have a hard time understanding us today.
You say that your grandfather's gift was modest, but the gesture was potent. He made both a monetary and spiritual connection. How can that happen today?
I think that people have as much opportunity to do that today as in any time. One of the advantages that people have today is when someone is in need or a family or a community is in need, they can simply look to the government. And God knows the Depression taught us that human beings can reach their limits no matter how resourceful they are--they need outside help, they need intervention, they sometimes need the government to come to the rescue when there is a systemic failure. But people also need people, and they need to know that neighbors care and the community cares. I think there is evidence all around us everyday of people reaching out in ways that are known and unknown to extend a hand to people in need. That's not at all limited to the Great Depression; in fact, in times of need I think people really discover that there are others that care about them. What my grandfather did in 1933, there are people who are doing that today. It isn't just about the money, it's about telegraphing to someone in need that they're not alone, they're not forgotten, somebody else cares. I think that dynamic is alive and well today and comes out whenever we as a country or a community suffer a setback.
One the one hand, many of the stories have a sameness about them; on the other hand, they are all absolutely compelling, they are still fascinating. Why are they so riveting?
One of the things is, in the year that they wrote, even though a lot of these people had little or no education, they were in many ways very articulate, incredibly earnest and candid. They take you into a very private place and you feel privileged to hear what's in their hearts and in their minds. There's no artifice, there's no put-on; these were written with the belief that no one would ever see them except for the shadowy Mr. B. Virdot, and so they really did pour their hearts out. That's one thing that makes them compelling. Another is that you're looking with these individuals at an incredibly dramatic moment in American history, when something changes about our character as a people, something fundamental. Until then, people didn't want to have much to do with government. A lot of them came to this country to escape government--they viewed it with suspicion, they didn't want its hand on them much--and this period and this degree of want forced them to see that no matter how industrious and hard-working they were, no matter how creative or how many miles they could walk in search of a job, there were no jobs to be found. They came to realize that unless someone intervened, their children could starve to death, their spouse could, they could. It was time when people realized that independence and industriousness had a limit, and that's what ushered in the New Deal. The New Deal could not have come before this period because people wouldn't have accepted it--they were too proud. They would have resented it tremendously.
Now you read these letters and almost see the wheel turn; you can see people who say they'd rather starve than accept charity, and yet they are writing, seeking a helping hand. I think we have this fascination with reality TV, but it's all staged and choreographed, and it's not real. What you're seeing in these letters is what reality TV initially aspired to, that is, the unvarnished look at others' lives in times of crisis.
And by the way, it isn't just Americans who endured this, or who are enduring this. I find it interesting that this book is being published in South Korea, in Australia, in Italy. The whole world is going through a difficult stretch right now, and the book speaks not just to the formation of the American character, but to the formation of human character in hard, hard times. You don't have to be an American to identify with this.
Are you still in touch with anyone from the book?
On November 5, I'm bringing together the descendents to the Palace Theater in Canton, Ohio. They are going to read from their parents' and grandparents' letters, talk about their lives. There's a composer who's composed a suite of music around some of the letters, and six musicians are going to be performing. The mayor of Canton will be there, and CBS Sunday Morning is filming it. Then 60 descendents of the letter writers and of B. Virdot are going to have a banquet at Bender's Restaurant, which figures in the book. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to that. They are coming in from as far away as Florida, Texas, North Carolina, all over the country. It should be very nice. I wanted to thank everybody for trusting me with the story, and I thought that they would get something out of meeting each other. The last living letter writer is going to be guest of honor. When the book was finished, there was one writer whose descendants I couldn't find, but after the book was edited, I found the daughter. I was interviewing her and asked her when her mother was born and married; I was about to ask when she had passed, but she asked me first if I would like to talk to her mother! I about fell out of my chair. She was still alive. She was 14 when she wrote the letter--Helen Palm. She actually remembers writing the letter. We opened up the book after it was edited and added her picture.
Book Brahmin: Ted Gup
Ted Gup says, "I am a husband, a father of two sons, a teacher, a poor guitarist, an able fly-fisherman, a decent pool player, a failed poet, a long-in-the-tooth journalist and an aspiring writer who, three books later, is still utterly mystified by the entire undertaking of authorship."
Despite being mystified by the undertaking of authorship, Ted Gup has managed to write not only A Secret Gift (The Penguin Press, November 2010), but also two previous books: Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and the bestselling The Book of Honor: Covert Lives And Classified Deaths at the CIA. He is a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post, where he worked under Bob Woodward. He later wrote for Time magazine, covering Congress and the environment, and served as Washington investigative correspondent. Since 2009, he has been professor and chair of the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston.
On your nightstand now:
Where I've been, and Where I'm Going by Joyce Carol Oates; Contemporary American Poetry edited Donald Hall--not so contemporary. It's a 1972 edition. I have a lot of catching up to do. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; Boston Common: Scenes From Four Centuries by M. A. DeWolfe Howe; Fathers: A Collection of Poems edited by David Ray and Judy Ray (a gift from my friend and poet, Len Roberts). Usually I have a copy of Phillip Larkin's poems bedside but, alas, my copy migrated with me to the restroom.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Grimm's Fairy Tales (and any of the Golden Book Series on various explorers, adventurers, and warriors).
Your top five authors:
George Orwell, E.B. White, Walter Lippmann, Thomas Lynch, Anne Fadiman.
Book you've faked reading:
The Blue and Brown Books by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Book you're an evangelist for:
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Ancient Rome: History of a Civilization that Ruled the World by Anna Maria Liberati. I'm a sucker for anything having to do with ancient Rome and Greece--I am an unrepentant classics major.
Book that changed your life:
Hiroshima by John Hersey.
Favorite line from a book:
From the poet Tom Gunn, "One is always nearer by not keeping still."
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Any book by E.B.White.
Mandahla: A Secret Gift
A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness--And a Trove of Letters--Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression by Ted Gup (Penguin Press, $25.95 Hardcover, 9781594202704, October 2010)
On a cold, drizzly December Sunday in 1933, hundreds of families gathered at the First Presbyterian Church in Canton, Ohio, for the annual reading of A Christmas Carol. It was a small spot of cheer in a very bleak year in the midst of the Great Depression. For four years, Canton's citizens had been beaten down by the Depression--children went to school on empty stomachs with holes in their shoes, if they had shoes; banks were padlocked and hard-earned savings were lost; homelessness swelled, people scavenged for coal along the B&O railroad tracks, and many ended up in asylums, poorhouses and orphanages. While listening to Dickens gave some momentary relief, outside in the cold was a city with 50% unemployment. "Like towns and cities and across the land, Canton was sinking fast, mired in a systemic failure so pervasive it bred more resignation that revolution. No institution existed--neither government, church, nor charity, to stem the misery.... That Christmas of 1933 was a time when consumption meant TB, not a shopping spree, and the stigma of the dole was as hard to face as hunger itself."
In that time of abject misery, the next day's paper, the Canton Repository, printed a brief ad from a mysterious man with a strange name: B. Virdot. The ad offered to give assistance to men or families for whom "the bread of tomorrow is the problem of today." B. Virdot acknowledged that it would be immensely difficult to ask for help; folks would "hesitate to knock at charity's door for aid." It was not just a matter of pride or shame--Canton's streets teemed with grifters and con artists, and the ad might seem suspicious. But the newspaper assured its readers that the offer was genuine, and B. Virdot promised that the recipients' names would remain confidential. He initially planned to give out $10 to 75 people, but with the deluge of letters, changed that to $5 for 150 recipients, which would have been close to today's $100--a veritable lifeline for some. Even for people who did not receive a check, many spirits were raised just by knowing that someone cared, that someone invited them to share their grief and suffering; indeed, many who wrote to him in secret thanked him just for the opportunity to unburden themselves.
Mr. B. Virdot kept his word--the people's names were never made public, and he also remained anonymous, since many who wrote to him would know his real name. These were proud men and women who would never have felt comfortable writing such letters to anyone whose face they might recognize.
B. Virdot was not unmasked for decades, but the secret began to unravel one day in June 2008, when Ted Gup became the recipient of a suitcase belonging to his grandfather Sam Stone. Among other things, it contained a large, tattered yellow envelope labeled: "PERTANING XMAS GIFT DISTRIBUTION." Inside the envelope were letters dated December 18, 1933; a passbook from a bank showing a $750 deposit; and 150 cancelled checks signed "B. Virdot." Gup had no idea what to make of it, but was curious--he was, after all, a former investigative reporter--so he began with his memories of his grandfather Sam, a short, exuberant, impish man: "For me, he was a grandfather so mischievous and impulsive that even as a child I felt I should keep a close eye in him." He was well-to-do, but had lived with both great poverty and great wealth. He had also, as Gup came to find out, known some very hard times before the Hard Times of the 1930s, and his life prior to 1918 was a mystery--any inquiry into Sam's early life was deflected with humor or a story.
So one mystery solved: B. Virdot was Sam Stone. But who was Sam Stone, and who were the people who wrote the letters, and what effect did the $5 gift have? Gup repeatedly read the letters, immersing himself in the history of his hometown of Canton and in the writers' anguish. They were mostly handwritten, from six pages long to just a few lines on a single page. They sought work, clothing and food, not necessarily a monetary gift, but the money would buy a Christmas dinner for August Liermann's eight children; milk and fresh eggs to soothe Hazel Baum's husband's ulcers; help for Frances Lindsay's neighbor, Willis Evans, who, though down on his luck, still took in others. Some letters were written on scraps of reused paper, some on letterhead stationery from defunct businesses. Black and white, immigrant and American-born, executive and ironworker--all of them in the same place now, struggling to live, and wanting so much to give a loved one or a neighbor a bit of Christmas.
For Ted Gup, who knew the Depression as a chapter in a history book, the past now became real. As he read and studied, he saw how the legacy of suffering shaped the character of his family, his community, and the nation--a legacy of sacrifice and gratitude. "In the minute details of their lives can be seen the stirrings of vast societal and political changes that would reshape the nation, and the emergence of a generation so respected that three-quarters of a century later its descendants would hail it as 'the Greatest.' "
Gup went through thousands of pages of documents in order to track down descendants of the letter writers. He wanted to know what happened to these people and to their children and grandchildren. He eventually pulled out about 50 that seemed representative of the entire group, and began to interview around 500 descendants. At the same time, he began tracking down Sam's story, to discover his true identity and motivation.
By the fall of 1933, Sam Stone, after many reversals, once again had a store, Stone's Clothes, and was prosperous. Sam had gone to great lengths to reinvent himself after his family immigrated from Romania, and while he had shed his past and improved himself, he was often beset by worry and feared the growing xenophobia of the era. Six thousand people arrested in 1920 and held without trial; restrictive immigration quotas; government crackdowns and public apprehension of radicals--all raised fears in Sam. Even in the best of times, he knew that fortune could be capricious, and he saw something of himself and his past in the people who wrote to him.
George Monnot had been a prominent businessman, with a Ford car dealership that occupied an entire city block and that had its own 11-person band. But by 1931 he had lost his business and his home, and now was struggling to feed his family of six. He wrote to B. Virdot, risking his pride, but couldn't bring himself to ask for anything; instead, he congratulated Mr. Virdot for his benevolence and kind offer. Monnot never fully recovered, and when he died in 1949, his obituary listed him as a stock clerk at a motor plant. Another businessman, Frank Dick, went from prince to pauper with his company, and mentioned in his letter that before his reversals his greatest pleasure was in assisting everyone around him, and that he hoped to be able to do it again. The same day that he wrote, a former employee of his was also asking for help. James Brownlee was 73 years old, and said, "I want to say how I would rather have work to pay for my own way than any other thing." But there was no work to be found, and neither man recovered. Bill Gray was a prominent figure in Canton, a regular at Bender's Restaurant, who had a prosperous painting business. After he lost it all, he picked up odd jobs, and dug potatoes for himself, his family and his neighbors and solicited canned foods for others in need. He did eventually get back on his feet, but more modestly, and to his grandson, he was a hardworking man who never talked about the Hard Times.
Nothing in these people's lives was as abhorrent as self-pity, and even those who had achieved some measure of success came of age in a time of immense hardship. Asking for help was just not done, and yet, people found themselves in that position. Charles Stewart wrote in an elegant hand:
"Practically my entire working career has been a white-collared job, until April, 1930. Since that date I have been unable to obtain any kind of steady employment. I did manage to obtain a day now and then during the summer, which kept the wolf from the door, or at least wouldn't allow him entrance. I applied to the Service Director for work, to be paid in groceries, but he stated he couldn't assist me in any way."
Women wrote to B. Virdot, too. They often had the most difficult time, since it was assumed that if a woman had a job, it was to supplement a man's income; they were the first to lose jobs, and they had fewer options. Alverna Wright's husband, Noble, was in a reformatory, listed as a "depression inmate," and she and her little girl lost their furniture and then their furnished rooms. She asked for $5 for her girl for Christmas, for her husband and mother and mother-in-law, who had also lost her home. Maude Carlin wrote asking for help, and her daughter Valerie, now 85, still remembers her Christmas gift of 1933, when she was nine: an orange and a little powder-blue change purse. The orange was the first fresh fruit she could remember. Rachel DeHoff became a widow in 1932, with two sons, a crushing mortgage and little savings. She wrote, "You mentioned men--but I am not a man but I am taking the responsibility of a man. As Father + Mother... I have never received charity of any kind or have never complained to anyone before but after I read your letter I made up my mind to write to you, not asking, just telling you my circumstances...." Rachel DeHoff became a successful real estate agent, and took others into her home, just as her sister had done for her earlier.
"Sam Stone was a silent and minor hero against the vast backdrop of the Great Depression," but there were many like him--people who took in others; merchants and doctors who extended payment terms; companies like Superior Dairy, which kept its employees and extended credit to its customers and later reaped the benefits of compassion in unexpected ways. The results of such small kindnesses can't always be calculated, but sometimes the thread runs straight from past kindness to the present. Mrs. Edith May, one of half a dozen African-Americans to write to B. Virdot, asked for help for her family--her husband, a "good farmer," and their daughter, Felice May. Felice remembers her father carrying her on his shoulders through the snow to the school bus stop. She remembers the skunks her father would trap for the pelts. And she remembers the Christmas of 1933, when her parents took her to town, to a five-and-dime. She had never seen anything like it, and chose one gift--a toy horse. Today, at 80, she raises and sells Welsh ponies on her farm. That check from B. Virdot reached far.
Over and over again, stories of compassion shine through these hard times. B. Virdot's gift of $5 did not restore fortunes or broken families, did not repair fragmented childhoods, but it may have helped some to not give in to despair. The New Deal had not yet had an effect, and people were desperate to know that their troubles mattered to someone. "To capitulate to self-pity or public plaints not only exposed weakness in one's own character but threatened to unravel the composure of others." One man said, "I can't even express myself in writing this letter. It hurts. Something within me rebels." For men like Ted Gup's grandfather, charity was the final act of defeat--not a stop-gap measure, but "the repudiation of a lifetime rooted in self-reliance. The shame of poverty was tolerable... but [not] the loss of face...." To give charity was a good thing, to receive it was degrading.
In uncovering the story of Sam Stone's life--a life that was in many ways tragic, in other ways wonderfully remarkable--Ted Gup discovered an amazing man and an amazing story. He began to see the power of his grandfather's charity: "It was the smallness of B. Virdot's gift--a mere five dollars--that was its magic, not an act of governmental grandiosity but a gesture of human compassion." Not only that, but Sam Stone had created a "rare comfort zone" where people could safely unburden themselves. His gesture of human compassion is a call to all of us this winter season, and beyond, to help each other in any way we can.
When James Brownwell, the 73-year-old painter, wrote a note of thanks to his benefactor, he quoted from Edgar A. Guest:
He has not lived who gathers gold,
Nor has he lived whose life is told
In selfish Battles he has won,
Or deed of skill he may have done,
But he has lived who now and then
Has helped along his fellowman.
What better words to live by, in good times as well as bad? --Marilyn Dahl